It Was 60 (!) Years Ago Today…
When one reaches an, ahem, advanced age, one tends to do more looking back than looking forward. It’s 2024, and having this week achieved the ripe young age of 68, I found myself fondly remembering what was and will always be one of my “favourite” years,1964. The reasons for my particular affection for this year are manifold. Sixty years ago this week, I had just turned eight. My British family, Dad, Mum and I - recent transplants to Southern California - had just moved out of a small apartment into a much more comfortable, brand-new house. Dad had just changed jobs for the better; in fact, he had moved into a job that would remain his until his retirement - about twenty-two years later. Mum, always the consummate wife, mother, homemaker, chauffeur, and all-around pal, had also taken a part-time job, babysitting two small children in the neighbourhood. Back in those idyllic times, I was able to safely walk alone from Frank E. Woodruff Elementary School each afternoon to join mum and her charges until it was time for us to go home for tea.
If I remember correctly, I had just received a basketball for my birthday. Dad was happy to attach a net to the new garage roof, despite the fact that he’d never seen a basketball game, and wouldn’t for many years to come. Nevertheless, he was happy to utilise my new basketball in order to demonstrate his best soccer moves. “You try to kick the ball away from me,” he’d say. I would try, but it was impossible. Obviously, there wasn't going to be any instruction on how to make a good jump shot or a free throw, but that didn’t amount to a hill of Heinz beans. I was now eight, and for two years I had been waiting, not-so-patiently, for the opportunity to learn to play the guitar, and that Sunday, the 9th of February, 1964, three days after my eighth birthday, a musical dam burst, not just in our sleepy little suburb, but all over America, when The Beatles made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I had first heard about The Beatles from my grandmother in England. Our little town in Lancashire was approximately an hour from Liverpool, and my Nanna had written enthusiastically about these four “lovely boys” called John, Paul, George and Ringo, who had become so popular over the last year or so. She was sure I would love them. Wait minute… Ringo??? What sort of name is Ringo for an English lad? Never mind. My curiosity was piqued.
As I mentioned, I’d already been waiting since the age of six to take up playing the guitar, and Mum had dutifully taken me to our local music store. “I think his hands are a little small,” the man behind the counter had said. Nothing had ever made me want to grow so fast. Now, with images of the fab four stepping off the plane at Kennedy Airport to mobs of screaming teenagers, the group charming the American press with their cheeky one-liners, and wowing seventy-three million viewers that Sunday night on Ed Sullivan’s CBS show, my musical cup hadn’t run over, it had exploded.
“Dad! I want a guitar!“
"You won’t keep it up.”
“I will, I will!”
“I tried to learn to play, and I gave up. You’ll be the same.”
I don’t know why, but some dads expect their kids to be just like them. My dad was one of them.
“I won’t give it up. I’ll practice.”
“Alright”… “I’ll give it three weeks.”
The gauntlet was thrown. A line had been drawn in the sand. It was do or die. Now or never.
I practiced like mad on my little rented red and black plywood acoustic. My fingertips hurt and turned green from the rusty strings, but I was undaunted. I loved it. Not only did I love playing, but on top of that, I needed to prove my dad wrong. I’d already experienced the pain of not living up to my dad’s expectations and I desperately needed to excel at something he couldn’t do. Somehow, the planets aligned. My plan fell into place better than I could have possibly hoped. I had the great fortune to have a wonderful teacher. Mike Catron was only eighteen, but he was already a master guitarist. He played a 1957 orange Gretsch Chet Atkins model with “Dynasonic” pickups. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I longed for a guitar like that. He could play like Chet, too. At the time, Mike seemed so “adult” to me, but in truth he was still a kid himself. I told Mike how I wanted to play like The Beatles. He replied, “I can play better than them.” It sounds like bravado, but it was the truth. Mike’s technique was flawless. With his help and encouragement, I flourished. I had found my identity. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Before long, I had a better guitar. Dad bought a little three - quarter size brown sunburst Fender Duo Sonic electric solid body with two single coil pickups and a tiny 5-watt Fender Champ amp. I wish I still had them. The Champ was the late 1950’s design, but was covered in 60’s black Tolex, rather than the tweed cloth of the 50’s models. It must have been a one-of-a-kind transitional model. I’ve never seen another like it.
It wasn’t long before I began doing little gigs - playing at schools, cub scout meetings, grandmother’s clubs, Elks Lodges, you name it. At one point I auditioned for a children’s Saturday morning variety show, “Fun For All,” broadcast live on a small local station - KCOP, channel 13 - in L.A. As luck would have it, I was spotted by some producers and invited to audition for the Peter O’Toole / Petula Clark film, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” I lost out on a part when the producers decided to cast the boy's roles in England, but through this process I landed an agent, and my new “side career” as a television actor was born. I was ten. Musically, I still had much to look forward to - writing songs, producing music, and performing - live, on stages around the world, on television, and in the recording studio.
Now, I feel as though I blinked, and it’s 2024. I look back at those early days with enormous fondness and gratitude. If it weren’t for the love and support of my parents, the musical encouragement of Mike Catron, and The Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, my life might have turned out very differently. These days, I’m back where it really all started, living in England, and pondering how best to celebrate my life of sixty years (and counting) in music. Sixty years?… and still playing guitar every day.
You know what? I might just go out and buy myself an orange Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. I think I’ve earned it.
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